Veterans Algeria

France’s Algerian shadow

Anger still strong among those who fought in the war France wanted to forget.

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As part of its series on Veterans Al Jazeera visited France where feelings over the country’s brutal war in its former colony Algeria more than 40 years ago still run deep.

Born and raised in Algeria Rabah Gerrairia considers the African nation very much “his country” but it is with sadness and bitterness that he explains why he will never return there.

“I won’t go back, I won’t go,” he says. “Of course my family’s there, and I’d love to see them. But I’m scared. I’m really scared I’d be killed. It’s my country, but I can never go back, never.”

Gerrairia fears for his welfare in Algeria emanate from his part in France’s brutal and bloody conflict in its former colony between 1954 and 1962.

He was one of 150,000 Algerian Muslims who fought for the French during the war known as “harki”, a term that more than four decades on is still a negative one for many of their countrymen.

Ahead of the declaration of independence by Algeria in 1962 they were forcibly disarmed by the French army – who stood by as thousands were tortured and killed by Algerian independence fighters who regarded them as traitors.

Algerian veterans are still bitter at their treatment by the government

Unlike European settlers who had also fought for the French – and despite the clear danger to their lives – Algerians who had fought for France were forbidden from immigrating to the former colonial power. 

Through the kindness of individual French commanders, however, several thousand were illegally smuggled to France where on arrival they were confined to primitive rural camps.

In the south of France, near Marseilles one group of veterans remain close friends, regularly meeting to relive their experience and share a cup of tea.

‘Republican values’

Revisiting the site of one camp, that was only finally demolished in 1995, the men reveal their hostility at the French government for their treatment.

“In the camp we lived communally, without any relation to the outside world. We were Arabs and didn’t know what racism was,” says Slimane Djera, another veteran.

“It was only when I was in college that racism came along. We were treated differently – always put at the back of the class. And we have found it very difficult to find jobs.”

“They [France] said we were there to defend “Republican values”, and then they left us without arms, to our own destiny,” says Saiid Merabti. “We want France to admit its responsibility for those of us who died in Algeria and for our abandonment in France”

The Algerian veterans’ anger is symptomatic of a conflict that has left deep psychological scars on the French psyche and whose legacy was left unaddressed and ignored for a long time by successive governments.

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It was a conflict that France was reluctant to label a war from the very start even as a rebellion by the Algerian National Liberation Front escalated from early attacks on French military and civilian targets into full-scale conflict.

Algeria was colonised by the French in the 19th century and, unlike the neighbouring protectorates of Tunisia or Morocco, Algeria was considered inalienable French territory, a mere extension of the mainland.

Independence drive

By the mid 20th century it was home to over a million European settlers who enjoyed the privileges of French citizenship, the overwhelming majority of the population – Arab and Berber Muslims – reaped few benefits from the French presence. 
In 1954 the FLN, determined to end France’s colonial rule and achieve independence, turned to violence.

The conflict was ultimately an unsuccessful one for the French

As the war became more embittered, atrocities were reportedly carried out by all sides.

Many young soldiers sent to Algeria were deployed to villages in the countryside to root out FLN influence at any cost.

“Two or three other soldiers and I found ourselves face to face with two FLN fighters. Guns were fired on either side, and they were wounded,” says Jean-Paul Vittori, one veteran who did his military service in Algeria.

“I stopped shooting to wait for reinforcements. Then other soldiers arrived, and one simply killed one of the FLN fighters. I’ll never forget that – it remains an open wound. I’d never have imagined that someone could kill a defenceless soldier.”

The French proved unable to crush the independence movement and at the end of 1956, the FLN hardened its stance, launching a campaign of urban attacks inaugurated a new chapter in the war known as “The Battle of Algiers”.

Such bombings were often carried out by Algerian women dressed in Western clothes – a tactic which sent the European settler population into hysteria.

Severe measures

France reacted harshly, deploying its 10th Parachute Division – headed by General Jacques Massu – to Algiers in an attempt to prevent any further attacks, and stop a General Strike called by the FLN to garner international attention to the independence cause.
General Paul Aussaresses reported directly to General Massu and says his superior officer was under orders to prevent a strike organised by the FLN “at any price.”
That price included degrading forms of torture, practiced by General Massu’s Parachute Division, as they swept the streets of Algiers’ ancient Muslim quarter – the Kasbah – in an attempt to identify and break FLN cells.

Many people were appalled at the measures that France was undertaking within its own territory.

“Today the French authorities admit that a war took place. At the time they refused to. So these prisoners didn’t fall under the Geneva Convention,” says Jacques Verges, a human rights lawyer famous for his defence of criminals such as Carlos the Jackal.

“What’s more, they weren’t even entitled to the same rights as ordinary criminals. Basically they were “outside” the law. The result was that in Algiers at the time over fifty torture sites existed, mainly in private houses.”
Verges began his career defending FLN suspects, an action undertaken, he claims, to raise attention in France itself to the systematic abuse of human rights being carried out in its name.
“Appalling crimes were committed in Algeria that no one knew about. Events were hushed up. Court-cases were the only way of denouncing these crimes publicly: the only way of denouncing torture.”

Official silence

The French state was to draw a line under the war. An amnesty was put in place for all crimes committed during the war and for decades it was veiled in official silence.

A minority still regret the independence of Algeria from France

That silence has not only angered Algerian veterans but also former French servicemen and former members of the “Organisation of the Secret Army” (OAS) a breakaway group of hardliners which brought France itself to the verge of civil war in its attempt to keep Algeria French at all costs.

The activities of the OAS against both French and Algerian targets accentuated inter-communal tensions in Algeria and men and women from the group still gather for  meetings of “The Association for the Defence of Former Prisoners and Exiles of French Algeria”.

More than four decades on, they remain firm in their belief that France should never have given up Algeria.

“We’ll forget once everyone has recognized de Gaulle’s betrayal – but we’ll never forgive him,” says Joseph Hattab Pacha, a member of the group.

Few French have much sympathy for former OAS members and their claims of “betrayal” but increased calls for recognition of the conflict and its atrocities saw the National Assembly officially admit that a “war” had taken place and a small monument was erected on the banks of the River Seine.

Broken silence

The silence surrounding the war was well and truly shattered in 2000 when
General Paul Aussaresses published a book in which he admitted his part in the systematic torture that was practiced by the French during the “Battle of Algiers”,  including his assassination of the local FLN leader Larbi Ben M’hidi, covered up at the time as “suicide”.

General Aussaresses insists that the coercive methods of interrogation – including torture – were sanctioned at the highest levels of the French State.
“General Aussaresses committed war crimes in Algeria, crimes against humanity. But his book shows that he committed these crimes under orders from members of the government,” Jacques Verges says. “He carried out the orders – but the people above him were quite simply able to bury the past.”

Aussaresses is unrepentant
over his role in the war

Aussaresses and his publishers were put on trial in order to suppress the book and convicted them of condoning war crimes, a move that many say made a scapegoat of the general by a nation still unable to face up to its own responsibility for the conduct of the war in Algeria.

The French values of liberty, equality and fraternity were badly compromised during the conflict and it continues to cast a shadow over France’s relationship with its own Muslim community.

Aussaresses however remains unrepentant.

“In the middle of trial in Paris my lawyer called me and said ‘listen Paul I have a message. If you say the word “regret” there will be no trial.’ I said: listen, I cannot say that. I cannot say that.

“I feel there is a song of Edith Piaff: “Non, rein de rein, no je ne regret rein.” That’s my song. I don’t regret. I did not like, but I don’t regret.”

Veterans, The French in Algeria can be seen on Saturday August 29 at 1930 GMT and on Sunday at 1030.